With so many different titles to choose from over a given year of gaming, I find it hard to justify replaying any game when there's so much I haven't played. Yet there are certain titles that I play almost on a yearly basis, with Super Metroid consistently finding its way on to my screen at least once a year. When I first entered the world of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, I had an inkling that I might be adding a game to my replayable list, and as I ventured into the trenches of World War I and Valiant Hearts, I was completely enchanted from beginning to end.
Given the backdrop of Valiant Hearts, it should come as no surprise that the plot centers around the events of World War I, touching on most major battles of the Great War. The game focuses on four different characters that have been affected by the war, exhibiting not only how the war was devastating for the soldiers involved, but how it tore their families apart and affected citizens as well. Each protagonist shows a different aspect of wartime life: Karl, the German immigrant deported from France without his wife and son; Emile, Karl's father-in-law who's drafted into the French military; Freddie, the American fighting for the French military; and the Belgian, Anna, a nurse who has crossed the front lines to provide medical assistance.
Each have their own reasons pushing them forward that's depicted in the game and through their emotionally written diaries, with their paths inevitably crossing as the war progresses. The narrative is truly gripping; from watching the events of the four protagonists' stories unfold and intertwine with heart wrenching effect to the amazing attention to detail given to all of the historical facts about the war that constantly provided me with new and interesting information, it comes together to form a fantastic story that paces the game perfectly.
Accompanying the emotionally powerful plot is a unique spin on point-and-click adventure gameplay. While clearly there's no pointer to control as you would with a traditional game of the genre, the manner in which the side-scrolling gameplay unfolds is very similar to titles like The Walking Dead Season 1 and 2, as well as other Telltale games. Most of Valiant Hearts is puzzle-based, requiring the character to intuitively solve puzzles through finding certain items, manipulating different objects, or throwing grenades, dynamite, or random junk to reach different areas.
Simple action sequences are spliced in between puzzle solving, where characters may have to thwack an unsuspecting soldier in order to progress. One hit from a soldier or weapon will see our characters perish, meaning that stealth plays a part in the game, though it's rather simple in its execution. Characters will simply have to hide behind bushes or conveniently placed walls while also utilizing empty wine bottles and rocks to distract soldiers. It's serviceable, but a more substantial stealth system could have been implemented; as it is, the stealth is one of the few areas where Ubisoft Montreal missed an opportunity to make Valiant Hearts even more special.
Early on in the game, Emile befriends a search and rescue dog that comes to his aid, eventually allowing all four protagonists to have the dog as a companion. The pup can reach many areas humans cannot, and progression through much of the game is dependent on its assistance, whether it be fetching a lever to make an elevator work or operating the elevator itself. The dog can also dig up hidden items throughout each level.
Items provide more historical information regarding their uses throughout the war, like a soldier's helmet that actually didn't protect anyone from harm given the weak material it was made from. It would have been easy to have allowed characters to pick up weapons and get violent, yet the direction the gameplay takes instead is genuinely refreshing. The use of the search and rescue dog is a great addition, allowing for more intricate puzzle solutions, as well as playing a key part in the game's narrative that will have you reaching for a box of tissues.
Where each character has his or her own personal reasons that pull them forward during such trying times, they also showcase different gameplay mechanics. Emile can dig his way through soft ground, Karl and Freddy are a bit more action based during their sections and take control of tanks and other machines, while Anna can provide medical support for the wounded. Each will use their specific ability rather extensively to navigate their respective levels, with most of the puzzles centered around what each character specializes in.
Emile, for example, will need to dig his way through different trenches and tunnels dug under trenches while avoiding dangerous chemicals deployed by the Germans. Freddy, in his desire for revenge for the killing of his wife, becomes the most militaristic, eventually finding those responsible and engaging in a QTE fisticuffs battle. Anna provides medical attention to any who requires it, regardless of their status in the war, be it ally, enemy, or civilian. Helping people occurs through timed button presses on a scrolling piece of gauze, where buttons need to be pressed in tempo with the patient's heartbeat. Though the different gameplay mechanics aren't initially very taxing, Valiant Hearts' difficulty scales well, providing a healthy challenge throughout, but not to the point where the added hint system will be necessary to use.
Tying together the impressive gameplay and narrative are wonderfully stylistic visuals that make great use of the Rayman Origins engine. The artwork conveys powerful emotions throughout the game in a minimalist fashion, and the violence that occurred during the period is toned down without disrespecting the seriousness of the war.
Keeping with the minimalist style, the main characters speak only single words at a time, and supporting characters relay requests to our protagonists through speech bubbles filled with pictures that depict your next objective. Though the voice work isn't very extensive, the narrator between levels delivers his explanation of the events of the war and our characters' stories with great effect, keeping to a very solemn but powerful tone. Music also plays a big part in creating a solemn atmosphere, as musical pieces powered by pianos and horns set the tone as soon as the title hits the screen. Each presentational aspect helps to give the narrative a more lasting impact, which Valiant Hearts succeeds at tremendously.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is the kind of game that everyone needs to play at least once. Though it's a not a very long game (you'll easily finish it under 8 hours), it doesn't feel like it ends abruptly. The engrossing narrative, intuitive gameplay and historical nuances are more than enough to make up for the short playtime, and with such lasting appeal, you'll be itching to experience Valiant Hearts again as soon as the final scene ends.
This review is based on a digital copy of Valiant Hearts: The Great War for the X360